Memoirs of Henry Villard/Volume 2/38

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Washington, Boston, Germany.—1863–1873

MR. VILLARD was compelled, by the return of his fever, to give up field work with the army in November, 1863. He spent the winter in Washington, where, early in 1864, with Horace White, who represented the Chicago Tribune in that city and held the clerkship of the Senate Military Committee, and Adams S. Hill, then in charge of the Washington bureau of the New York Tribune and now for the last thirty years Professor of Rhetoric at Harvard University, he organized the first news agency in competition with the Associated Press. By personal visits to the managers and editors, he succeeded in winning the Chicago Tribune, the Missouri Democrat, the Cincinnati Commercial, the Rochester (N. Y.) Democrat, the Springfield (Mass.) Republican, and the Boston Advertiser for the new undertaking, which was bitterly attacked by the Associated Press for disturbing its monopoly. But he was successful from the start. As the representative of this news agency, in May, 1864, he joined the Army of the Potomac under the chief command of General Grant at Culpepper Court House. He was the first correspondent to reach Washington with the news of the bloody drawn battles in the Wilderness. He returned to the army after it reached the Peninsula, and crossed the James River with it, witnessing the siege of Petersburg until after the explosion of the mine (July 30, 1864), when he responded to an urgent summons to Germany from his family.

He reached his native town of Speyer but a short time before the death from consumption of his elder sister Anna, which was preceded only a few days by that of her infant child. Mr. Villard's mother had died five years before. Most of the winter was spent in Munich with his father and with his remaining sister, who was married to an army officer stationed at Nuremberg. On the last day of March, 1865, he sailed from Liverpool, expecting to arrive in time to witness the final struggle between Grant and Lee, and was overcome with surprise on hearing, after landing in Boston on April 15, simultaneously the astounding tidings of the fall of Richmond, the surrender of Lee, and the assassination of President Lincoln.

Mr. Villard's friend, Horace White, having, in the meantime, assumed the chief editorship of the Chicago Tribune, offered Mr. Villard the position of regular Washington correspondent of the paper, which he accepted and filled for a year. Early in January, 1866, he married the only daughter of William Lloyd Garrison, and took his bride to Washington. In June, he received an invitation from the New York Tribune to go to Europe as one of two special correspondents, the other being George W. Smalley, to report the impending war between Prussia and Austria. He went gladly, and sailed for England with his wife early in July. There was no Atlantic cable at that time, and, according to the latest news received up to his departure, hostilities had not broken out. On landing in Southampton, he was amazed to learn that the battle of Sadowa had been fought, that the Prussians were advancing on Vienna, that peace negotiations were under way, and that, in short, the war was practically over. Nevertheless, he proceeded to Bohemia, and visited the several battlefields, followed in the wake of the Prussian armies through Bohemia and Moravia, and reached Nikolsburg, where the Prussian headquarters with King William, Crown Prince Frederick, and Bismarck were established after the cessation of hostilities. Mr. Villard subsequently spent some time at Vienna, where he was very kindly treated by the United States Minister, Mr. J. L. Motley.

The winter of 1866–7 Mr. Villard passed at Munich with his wife and her youngest brother. His sister had moved there in the meantime. In pursuance of his engagement with the Chicago Tribune as its special correspondent for the World's Exhibition of 1867, Mr. and Mrs. Villard went to Paris in March. They remained there until the following February, with the exception of a short visit to England, where they met Mr. William Lloyd Garrison, who was then being fêted in Great Britain. Mr. Villard also spent some weeks at the bedside of his father, who died in his presence early in September, 1867. In February, 1868, he and his wife set out from Paris for their first tour in Italy. On the way thither they paid a visit to John Stuart Mill at Avignon, of which Mr. Villard wrote an account for the Chicago Tribune. To the same paper he likewise contributed a description of a violent eruption of Mount Vesuvius, for which the well-known Professor Palmieri allowed him the privileges of his observatory.

Mr. and Mrs. Villard returned to the United States in May, 1868, and lived at the Garrison home in Roxbury, a suburb of Boston, till the fall of 1870, during which time their only daughter and eldest son were born. Mr. Villard became a contributor of editorial and other matter to the Boston Daily Advertiser and other newspapers, and also wrote an article on Bismarck for the North American Review. In the fall of 1868, he was elected Secretary of the American Social Science Association, with an office in Boston, which position he filled for two years. Through this connection he came in contact with leading men throughout the country, and was instrumental in promoting public interests in various ways. Among his labors, the most noteworthy was his pioneer work in civil-service reform, for he helped to organize the first societies for its furtherance in Boston, New York, and Philadelphia. The first public meetings in its behalf in the two former cities were arranged chiefly by him, in order to obtain a hearing for the first Civil Service Reform Bill, which had been laid before Congress. It was personally elucidated by its author, Thomas A. Jenckes, a member of the House from Rhode Island.

Mr. Villard's Social Science secretaryship led him to enter upon the investigation and study of public and corporate financiering, including that of railroads and banks. The subject of railroad securities especially interested him, and the knowledge acquired in this respect prepared him in a measure for his later business career, though he did not then dream that he would soon enter into that field. His attention was also attracted to the so-called "mortgage banks" so common on the continent of Europe, but as yet unknown in the United States, and he prepared and published a paper advocating their adoption.

The climate of Boston did not agree with him, and he suffered so much from catarrh that, in the fall of 1870, he decided to seek medical advice in Germany. During his stay there, he submitted to the management of a large bank in Berlin a project for the establishment of mortgage-banks in the United States. It was favorably received, and the institution agreed to raise the necessary capital in the Continental way, provided a special charter could be obtained for it in one of the older States. On his return to Boston early in 1871, he interested parties there in the plan, and it was decided to apply to the Massachusetts Legislature for a charter. The application failed, and nothing ever came of the scheme, but the relations into which it had brought him with financial circles in Germany proved subsequently of great value to him.

Mr. Villard's health began to fail during 1871, and he decided in the fall to go to Germany with his family, in order to recuperate. While passing the following winter at Wiesbaden, he was called on by some acquaintances from Boston to assist in the negotiation of a large railroad loan at Frankfort-on-the-Main and Berlin, and this business still further extended his circle of acquaintance among German financiers. The family, augmented by the birth of a second son, spent the summer of 1872 in Switzerland, and the winter, of 1872–3 in Heidelberg, where he had a number of relatives. Soon after going there, he had an apoplectic stroke, which was so serious that his physicians opined he would never be able to undertake mental labor again without great risk. But they themselves did not live long enough to see their predictions falsified.

While recovering from his severe illness, he received one day in February, 1873, a call from a gentleman residing in the place, with whom he was acquainted. His visitor asked Mr. Villard's opinion regarding an unfortunate investment he had made in American railroad bonds, and said that he had bought a considerable amount of the seven per cent. bonds of the Oregon & California Railroad Company of Oregon, on the strength of the statements made by the banking-house which had offered them for public subscription. Knowing nothing about the railroad company and but little of Oregon, Mr. Villard could not give the desired advice. At his suggestion, the gentleman obtained from the Protective Committee for the bondholders at Frankfort such information as it had regarding the company and the road. The material was ample, and in the light of it Mr. Villard gave an unfavorable opinion, and this led the chairman and another member of the committee to visit him and consult with him about the matter and to a subsequent invitation to join that body, to which he agreed after some hesitation, on the assurance that little work would be required of him. Such was the beginning of his business career. As shown in the preceding record of his first twenty years in America, he had never had any training for finance; but the determination and energy developed in him by his experience as a pioneer in Colorado and as a war correspondent, his extensive observation of and practical judgment in regard to national affairs, his wide acquaintance in the United States, the part he took in the mortgage-bank project and the bond negotiations just mentioned, all helped to prepare him for the new occupation upon which he was now to enter.